The hardest writing secret for me to learn—-probably the most important secret any writer can ever learn—-is to write only for yourself. You are your ideal reader, and the only person you need please is yourself.
I’m my own harshest critic. I obsess over every word. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and nothing is ever as good as my image of the way it should be.
That does not mean I don’t appreciate other perspectives. I do. I always appreciate advice and criticism from editors, agents, readers, and other writers.
But I don’t write to please others. I write only to tell the stories the way I envision them told. Sometimes I hear the words. Sometimes I see the words written down. Sometimes I feel the words or smell them or taste them.
Words are magical to me. Words enchant me and entrance me. I am under their spell.
Because I write in several genres, I’m not as well known as a horror writer, a suspense writer, a thriller writer, a science fiction and fantasy writer, or a mystery writer as I probably would be if I concentrated on one style and one genre only and published everything under one byline. I was raised in the great pulp tradition when writers had to write in many different genres and styles and under a variety of bylines just to earn a meager living. I wasted years studying mass-market trends and writing to guidelines established by editors or suggestions made by agents who supposedly knew the markets better than I.
By the time my stories or proposals crossed an editor’s desk, my themes were ofttimes out of vogue or the editor had moved on and the new editor wanted something different or the publication was no longer accepting unsolicited submissions. More than half of what I wrote never saw print.
When I returned to fiction writing in 2012 after an absence of nearly twenty years, I wrote only what I wanted to write without understanding how markets had changed in the interim. That proved to my advantage. Like many science fiction writers, I was either far ahead of my times or far behind my times. With a little bit of revision, several of my old novels and trunk stories became marketable as new 21st Century e-books because the truths I told then are particularly relevant to readers today. I am in the process now of dusting those stories and novels off, cleaning them up, modernizing them, and publishing them on Amazon.
Since I no longer write to spec, I am free to write what I want when I want and how I want. I write formula fiction because it’s what I know and love to read. But I cross genrelines with impunity, and I even toss in a few mainstream literary devices when I feel like it.
I’ll never be totally pleased with my writing, although I am certainly pleased with the progress I’m making as a writer. I’m pleasantly surprised when readers tell me they appreciate what I did in their favorite short story of mine or in a novel. It’s not like the old days when fans would often come up to me at cons and quote verbatim what they found especially memorable in one of my stories. These days, fans demand to know more about my characters and what will happen to so-and-so next because today’s fans don’t pay particular attention to the exact words I use to make my characters and their harrowing life-situations come alive, but they really do care about individual characters and what happens to each of them in their fictional worlds. I suppose that’s progress. It certainly makes selling sequels much easier. I like most of my characters, and I want to know more about them, too.
I shouldn’t be surprised that some readers appreciate my psychological horror (slasher) novels while other readers like my supernatural (paranormal) fantasies more. Still others prefer my police procedurals or my military thrillers. I realize it’s impossible to appeal to every reader out there. I must admit I was a bit surprised when a writer I admire told me he found Winds more fascinating than Light. Some of the settings and characters are literally the same in both novels. I should probably give up trying to second-guess readers. I find all of my novels fascinating, and that’s why I wrote them.
There are times I wish someone else would write my novels so I wouldn’t have to.
You know how this whole writing thing works, don’t you? You see a story idea and it grabs hold of you and simply won’t let you go. It’s a story that MUST be told. You do research, look around everywhere, for the same story already in print. When you can’t find it, you have to write it yourself to learn how the characters grow and develop and to discover how the story ends. Each of my novels—whether a standalone or part of a series—is a story I desperately wanted to read exactly the way it’s written. I hope you’ll want to read it, too. But if you don’t, that’s okay. I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for me.
I know this goes against all of the conventional wisdom and everything I’ve learned in numerous writing classes and in books on the craft. I’m supposed to call you “Dear Reader” and pretend it’s all for you and I seek your approval with my writing. That’s a goddamned lie.
I write for me, and for me alone. I am willing to share my writing for a price.
If you’re a professional writer, you already know the secret: what makes your work valuable is your unique vision—your insights and intuitions—and the way you show us (reveal) your world through characterization, dialogue (literally, “through everyday words”), subtext, and metaphors. Readers are willing to pay you to share your visions if your visions are significantly different, sufficiently unique, and superbly well-written. Your writing doesn’t need to be perfect, just good. A competent craftsperson with a unique vision is often more worthy of reading than a literary perfectionist who has nothing new to reveal. That has been true for sf and fantasy visionaries for centuries, and it’s still true today.
Some writers, like Stephen King, have a unique voice. They possess an ear for words, and readers hear that voice whispering in their inner ears like their own self-talk. I admire that greatly. Like a teen-aged boy entering puberty, I’m still developing my mature voice.
As a mid-list author at the mid-point in his career, I have a clear vision of what I want to write next. Now I need to combine vision with voice to tell my unique stories the way they deserve to be told. I’m working on that.
Yes, Elizabeth, I’m still working on that. I guess I always will be until I get it right.